German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and First Lady Elke Buedenbender Chat with refugees attending the training program for mechanics while visiting the Gallinchen job training and technology center on June 23, 2017 in Cottbus, Germany

The EU’s migration roadmap: harnessing North African talent to bridge the labor gap

September 2023 Al-Monitor PRO Trend Report 

3,105 words



On July 25, leading German engineering firm Geodesia forged a major partnership with Morocco's Agency for Employment and Skills Development. The goal: to train and employ 10,000 Moroccans in Germany, a welcome development for the North African nation grappling with a soaring youth unemployment crisis. This landmark agreement is not just about engineering jobs; it's part of a grand European strategy. For years, European nations have been courting talent from the Maghreb region, offering youth opportunities in key domains with domestic shortages such as IT, science, engineering, healthcare and agriculture. Now, the European Union (EU) and its member states are taking this strategy even further, tailoring new policies to attract more skilled migrants from North Africa, even while aggressively cracking down on irregular migration from the same region. 

One way the EU has championed this selective migration strategy is through its Talent Partnerships Initiative, a program announced in its New Pact on Migration and Asylum to “enhance legal pathways to the EU” for workers from Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, as well as Bangladesh and Pakistan. To kick off the initiative, the EU held roundtables with Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt from April-June 2023, and is moving “toward implementation with analysis of sectors, occupations, as well as identification of skills levels and training needs as next step,” European Commission Spokesperson for Home Affairs Anitta Hipper told Al-Monitor. 

At the same time, however, the EU is heavily investing in curbing irregular migration. On July 16, the EU committed €100 million to Tunisia, the main transit point for irregular migrants entering Europe via the Mediterranean, to support anti-smuggling operations, improve border control and expedite the return of failed asylum-seekers. The aid package follows a similar deal in 2017 with the coast guard of Libya, as well as a €152 pledge in March 2023 to Morocco, which shares the only land borders with Europe, for the same purpose. However, despite these deals, clandestine migration from North Africa to Europe has soared this year, putting 2023 on pace to be the busiest year for Mediterranean migration since 2016. 

It is not just North Africans taking this route. Transiting sub-Saharan migrants — from countries as far as Burkina Faso and Cameroon — make up a large part of the traffic, trekking alongside North Africans with the same aspirations. 

The reason for the trend is clear. As socio-economic instability pervades North, West and Central Africa — and tales of a better life in Europe abound — youth are determined to reach the northern continent however they can. According to a 2023 poll by Arab Youth Survey, nearly half of North African youth are actively seeking to migrate. The numbers from the Arab Barometer’s 2022 survey are even more telling — over 40% of potential migrants from Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan and Libya consider making their journeys without papers. 

Their outlook presents clear opportunities and challenges: Europe, for its part, can expect to continue seeing a steady stream of low- to high-skilled workers to fill its vacant job roles — from cooks to carpenters to doctors — even if it will struggle to route all migrants through legal channels. 

North Africa, meanwhile, will be left to cope with a youth population in exodus — providing some benefit to their home countries in the form of foreign currency remittances, but also sending worrying signals about the region’s own development prospects. 

“If conditions remain as they are, migration will only increase,” Mohamed Kouni, an economics professor at the University of Sousse whose research focuses on development and migration, told Al-Monitor. “This is true for both regular and irregular migration, and for skilled and unskilled migrants.”


1. State of Play

As of 2020, the last time the UN conducted an estimate of global migration figures, there were 5.9 million North African migrants living in Europe. The largest populations were from Morocco (2.9 million), Algeria (1.8 million) and Tunisia (663,000), all former French colonies whose citizens have been migrating to the continent, especially France, since the early 20th century. 

In recent years, North African migration to Europe has continued to climb. In 2021, nearly 250,000 North African migrants received first-time residency permits in EU states, with most residing in France, Spain and Italy. In 2022, the number jumped to at least 290,000, with a significant boost to Germany and Belgium. While many North African migrants travel to Europe with work visas, a larger percentage (54% in 2021) received permits for family reasons, due to policies that allow reunification of migrants’ spouses and children. “Much of migration today is a result of migration yesterday,” Philippe Fargues, a French sociologist who founded the European University Institute’s Migration Policy Centre, told Al-Monitor. 

Education is another major source of migration, with student visas accounting for 15% of North Africans’ first-time residency permits in the EU in 2021. For those who can afford it, studying in Europe provides not only highly-sought credentials but an easier path to long-term employment and residency in the continent. 

However, even migrants who cannot secure a visa have roundabout ways to get to the continent and gain residency. The formula: Travel to Europe clandestinely, find work in the bustling underground economy and stay under the radar until you can regularize your status. In June, Germany passed a law that makes it easier for such undocumented migrants and asylum-seekers to find work and get papers, and France is considering a similar proposal that would provide for regularization of migrants working in target sectors. For many youth in the region — where unemployment for their age group is 28%, the highest in the world, and wages are anywhere from 4-10 times lower than in Europe — this path is tempting.

The surge in migration also has clear benefits for Europe. Today, EU countries have the largest aging populations in the world, leading to widespread job vacancies in key industries such as healthcare, engineering, construction and domestic service. According to a 2022 report by the European Employment Services (EURES), migrants fill more than 16% of the jobs in these industries. 

Their role is especially pronounced in countries like Italy and Germany, where labor shortages are among the highest in the bloc and are set to multiply in the years ahead. In 2022, there were 1.98 million job vacancies in Germany, the highest of all time — a number that could jump to 7 million by 2035. Italy, meanwhile, has a 20% shortage of college graduates and a 40% shortage of high school graduates in its labor market. 

Desirée Quagliarotti, a researcher at the Institute for Studies on the Mediterranean whose work focuses on the interactions between the economy and the environment in Mediterranean countries, told Al-Monitor that the EU’s awareness of migrants’ contribution to the bloc’s economy is “profoundly influencing European migration policy.” 

“To address labor shortages, fill skill gaps and boost economic growth, the EU is encouraging legal migration,” Quagliarotti said. “Legal pathways, improving the overall migration management may also, to some extent, reduce irregular migration.”

As part of this effort, Italy aims to issue 425,000 work permits to non-EU citizens by 2025, primarily for skilled positions such as nurses, plumbers, mechanics and construction workers. Germany in June also signed off on a new plan to ease restrictions for skilled migrants who could fill jobs as bus drivers, service workers or metalworkers. All of this could lead to even higher flows of North African migrants to the continent in the years to come. 


2. Migrant Flows and Fiscal Tides: 

While labor migration has generally positive effects for European economies and individual migrants, its implications for their home countries are more ambiguous. Generally, North African countries, with the exception of Algeria, have viewed emigration positively as it serves to alleviate unemployment within their borders and generate valuable foreign currency remittances. This is especially true when it comes to emigration of uneducated or unskilled youth, whom governments fear will remain jobless and potentially stir unrest at home. 

“In Tunisia, unskilled workers going overseas is viewed as a relief,” Fadhel Kaboub, an economics professor at Denison University and president of the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, told Al-Monitor. “They would otherwise be unemployed at home and unemployment creates problems. The more who leave, the better, from the government’s point of view.”

But it is not just unskilled workers looking for jobs abroad. Throughout North Africa, doctors, engineers, managers and other highly-skilled professionals are turning their sights overseas. From 2011-2019, France, the primary destination for such migrants, saw a 50% increase in doctors from the region. During the same time, Europe drew thousands of North African ICT graduates annually, particularly those with expertise in data science.

One driving force behind the flow of highly qualified migrants is, of course, the wage gap. Another is the mismatch in local skills and their home countries’ market needs. Ironically, North Africa actually sees its unemployment rate go up among university graduates, who comprise 30% of the unemployed population.  

“Twenty to 30 years ago, most unemployed people in the Maghreb were unskilled,” noted Fargues. “Today, unemployment is high for everyone and even higher for those with university degrees.”

The positive side of highly skilled migrants taking their talents abroad is the remittances they send back. Throughout North Africa, remittances make up significant percentages of countries’ gross domestic products, according to the International Monetary Fund, including as much as 8.3% in Morocco in 2022. 

However, while remittances can serve as a lifeline for struggling families, their long-term development impact is less straightforward. “Remittances come in small amounts, generally to support consumption, not investment,” said Kaboub. “At best, families who do use remittances to invest, invest in education, health or maybe a property. The numbers can't be compared to the impact of high-tech foreign direct investment, for example.”

Fargues said that while remittances have economic benefits for migrants’ countries of origin, they cannot be the foundation of a thriving economy. “I’m not aware of any country that has been able to succeed economically on the basis of remittances. It cannot be the most important part of an economy.” 

However, emigration has other benefits that go beyond direct remittance flows, economists note. It not only boosts trade ties and facilitates knowledge and technology transfer in emerging industries, such as renewable energy, but it also incentivizes education for disenfranchised youth who see a model for success abroad. “Consider the psychological effect,” said Kouni, of the University of Sousse. The possibility of migration can “motivate people to invest more in education,” leading to a more qualified workforce. 

There is also the prospect of “circular migration.” Some North African immigrants have returned home after gaining valuable overseas education and experience to launch innovative businesses, such as Algeria-based ridesharing application Yassir, which has one of the highest valuations in North Africa, and Tunisia-based tech training center GoMyCode, which has trained more than 30,000 people throughout Africa in high-demand digital skills.  

While such “circular migration” can present win-win scenarios, Kaboub says that it is relatively limited. And on balance, he worries that countries that have invested years in health and education in their citizens may be losing their most promising resources by not developing a stronger strategy to keep them at home. 

Regarding Tunisia, he said, “When you have an economy that’s so weak it can’t create enough jobs for its own people, sending them abroad is viewed as a positive. That’s how narrow the vision is and has been for a long time. ...The value lost is the potential for citizens to innovate and create jobs in their own country. Unfortunately, there is no ecosystem for them to do this. It is a policy failure.” 


3. Outlook

Europe’s aging population will continue to provide demand for migrants. Currently, more than 21% of EU citizens are 65 or older, and this number is expected to grow to 30% by 2030. This will multiply shortages throughout the labor market, with millions of low- to high-skill positions left vacant, and migrants available to fill the gap. 

• With high joblessness rates, low wages and general economic uncertainty throughout North Africa, migrants with the resources to migrate to Europe will continue to do so in high numbers. According to recent surveys of Arab youth, as many as half want to migrate abroad, and many are willing to do so clandestinely if they cannot access legal channels. 

Accommodating family visa policies in major EU countries, such as France and Spain, will lead to an even higher degree of migration. Already, there are at least 6 million North African migrants in Europe, with more than 290,000 first-time residency permits issued last year. These numbers will rapidly grow as family members seek to reunite with them. 

Europe’s efforts to curb irregular migration to the continent will be tested. For years, the EU has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into border management initiatives with southern Mediterranean states. It also in 2022 successfully pressured Serbia, which borders EU territory, to end visa-free travel for Tunisia, Burundi, India and Guinea-Bissau, whose citizens had previously used the Balkan state as a stepping stone to clandestinely enter the EU. Despite these initiatives, irregular migration has persisted, with central Mediterranean crossings reaching a seven-year peak in 2023, as smugglers develop new tactics and routes to keep business humming. 

• Skilled professionals will flourish in Europe due to labor needs but could create imbalances in their own countries. Tunisia, for example, which produces the second-most science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates per capita in the world, struggles to keep the most experienced and elite of these sectors at home. “It’s almost impossible to find and keep IT engineers with over three years of experience,” one Tunis-based IT entrepreneur who has a team of 15 developers told Al-Monitor. “Since all the experienced developers leave, we’re left with only the inexperienced ones — or those who have no option but to stay because of family commitments or other reasons.”

Migrant success stories will continue to incentivize North African youth to pursue education and training in high-demand sectors. The psychological effect is key: Seeing close friends and family members build strong careers overseas provides them with a powerful blueprint for success.


4. Case Study: Tunisian Doctors Take Flight 

Despite having just 12.5 million citizens, Tunisia has the top-ranked health care system in North Africa. Each year, more than 400,000 people, many from neighboring Libya and Algeria, seek care in this system, generating more than $330 million in medical tourism revenue per year. The success of this industry is largely due to its highly qualified medical personnel, who benefit from top-ranked universities and rigorous medical training at home. However, this system has been put under strain as a growing number of its doctors leave for overseas jobs, primarily in France and Germany. In 2022, 1,100 Tunisian doctors left the country, according to the country’s Council of the Order of Physicians, a 13% increase from the year before, and surpassing the number of practitioners it trains annually. Noureddine Ben Abdallah, secretary general of Tunisia’s Union of Doctors, Dentists and Pharmacists, has warned that the trend will cause severe shortages of medical personnel. “It's going to be a big problem,” he told Tunisian news site Inkyfada. “We have doctors who are retiring and they need to be replaced.”

The impact is already taking a toll on Tunisia’s public health system, which has been chronically underfunded for years. This is especially the case in remote, underserved regions, which have far fewer medical specialists and clinics than the country’s coastal enclaves and are suffering the most from the flight of Tunisian doctors. 

For France and Germany, on the other hand, which have their own shortages of tens of thousands of doctors, the benefit of Tunisian physicians immigrating is tremendous. Each year, they receive a crucial supply of elite doctors, many of whom work below market rate as they wait to pass their equivalency exams. And now, they are looking to attract even more, including through a new draft immigration law in France that would streamline and lengthen the duration of “talent” residency permits.

Like high-skilled migration in various fields, the departure of Tunisian doctors highlights the intricate economic dynamics affecting both the countries sending and receiving them. While it benefits European countries facing labor shortages and motivates North African youth to excel, it brings both gains and losses to home countries that have invested in their education.


5. Key Takeaways

⮕ As key labor market shortages persist, Europe is turning to North African migration more than ever to meet the demand for skilled professionals in target job roles, from domestic service workers to medical specialists. “Europe’s labor market has been frozen, and migration is responding to needs from employers,” said Fargues.

⮕ One component of this strategy is the EU’s Talent Partnerships Initiative, a program that builds legal pathways for skilled workers from Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. Individual EU states, such as France, Germany and Italy, are also crafting their own policies to attract skilled migrants and ease the regularization process for undocumented migrants already working in high-demand sectors. 

These initiatives highlight Europe's dual commitment to talent acquisition and deterrence of irregular migration, which it is simultaneously investing hundreds of millions in to curb. “The kind of flows that European states are trying to stop are flows of people without work permits,” said Fargues.

⮕Despite the EU’s efforts, irregular migration has surged in 2023. It's a phenomenon that transcends North Africa, as sub-Saharan migrants also use the Mediterranean route to reach the continent. The trend is spurred by widespread joblessness, low wages and general instability in North, Central and West Africa.

Highly educated youth in North Africa struggle with unemployment as much as those without degrees. And even those who can find a job often earn dismal starting salaries, motivating North Africa’s best and brightest to seek work in Europe.

While Europe benefits from this influx of talent, it has a twofold impact on sending countries. While bringing much-needed foreign currency revenues to North Africa via remittances and driving some circular investment and innovation, it also risks stripping the region of its elite professionals at the expense of local economies. “Greater coordination is required to allow for what has been called a ‘triple win' — in which migrants, origin and destination countries all benefit from migration,” said Quagliarotti.

As Europe’s population ages and North African youth struggle to find good jobs at home, migration will naturally fill the gap. How effective the EU will be in ensuring effective legal channels and curbing irregular flows remains to be seen. 

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